Parent Behaviors and Children’s Brain Development
Decades of research have been dedicated to investigating the nurture side of the age-old question of nature vs. nurture in child development. We all now know that parent-child interactions are crucial to a child’s brain development, and that children’s brains grow and change as a result of their experience. As the primary relationship and provider of early experience the parent plays a vital role in development. Although we now have a greater understanding of how important the parent-child relationship is, much of the research done on this topic involves children who have been deprived of functional parent-child relationships, including those with early experience of neglect and abuse. Of course brain development in these populations differs greatly from those whose experience we would characterize as more typical—a mother or father caring for their child to the best of their ability. This being said, the question remains, in children with typical development and typical experiences, are there different parenting characteristics that affect brain development? Are there ways of interacting with your child that foster their growth and development more than others?
A recent study aimed to investigate this question, looking into the normal variations in parenting related to measures of brain development in a child. The study looked at four characteristics of material behavior and their correlation to brain development in infants, as measured by brainwave activity. The four behaviors measured in the study were how well the mother responded to the cues of the child, the extent to which the mother controlled the interaction by following her own agenda and often ignoring the child’s cues, the mother’s expression of positive emotion during interaction with her child, and the amount the mother physically touched the child during interaction. When the researchers related the mother’s behaviors with their children’s brain development, they found that the combination of maternal behaviors that had the most significant effect on brain development was positive maternal affect with lack of physical stimulation during interaction. This means that the children whose mothers were able to maintain engagement without touching their child and exhibited positive affect during interaction showed the greatest change in brain activity.
Why Does This Matter?
Practically speaking, while there are a huge number of variables and experiences in a child’s life that are out of the parent’s control, a parent’s behavior during interaction is something that that parent has control over. This study provides strong evidence that the qualities of parent-child interactions have profound effects on brain development, even within the set of circumstances that make up a typical environment. This result agrees with conventional wisdom: that positive interaction and reading a child’s cues are good for development. What’s more, this result offers a potential reason for why these parenting styles have such an effect on children’s development – that the development of the brain itself is being affected.
Bernier, A., Calkins, S. D. and Bell, M. A. (2016), Longitudinal Associations Between the Quality of Mother–Infant Interactions and Brain Development Across Infancy. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12518